A Reflexive Critique of Inter-paradigm Divisions in International Relations Theory: On Anarchy, Hierarchy and Pre-1919 Theory

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
59(2) 119 –143, 2022
© 2022 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221102050
Research Article
A Reflexive Critique of
Inter-paradigm Divisions
in International Relations
Theory: On Anarchy,
Hierarchy and Pre-1919
Ivo Ganchev1,2,3
This article begins by re-opening the Third Great Debate which established
division lines between mainstream (realist/liberal/constructivist) and Critical
(neo-Marxist/neo-Gramscian) theories of International Relations based on their
different assumptions about the nature of the international system: anarchy and
hierarchy, respectively. The first half of the article argues that adopting common
definitions of these concepts makes the anarchy–hierarchy debate theoretically
irresolvable and further demonstrates that mainstream and Critical theories do
not share an understanding of these terms neither between, nor within, their
own traditions. The second half of this article challenges and aims to correct
the interpretation of three key political thinkers, Halford J. Mackinder, W. E. B.
DuBois and Norman Angell as appropriated within the inter-paradigm debates
of International Relations. It argues that the respective associations of these
thinkers with early realism, critical theories and early liberalism are intellectually
misguiding because their works exhibit a common understanding of the
‘international’ across macro- and micro-dimensions, which is uncharacteristic
of ‘-isms’. This shows that popular interpretations of pre-1919 works through
post-1919 paradigms can obscure more than they reveal. These findings do
not seek to present new ideas but to produce a reflexive critique of IR which
illuminates some, perhaps unintended, counter-productive systemic effects that
inter-paradigm divisions can have on the discipline.
3 Beijing Union University, Beijing, China
2 Centre for Regional Integration, London, UK
1 Queen Mary University of London, London, UK
Corresponding author:
Ivo Ganchev, Mile End Road, Bethnal Green, London E1 4NS, UK.
E-mail: ivoganchev@regionalintegration.org
120 International Studies 59(2)
Mackinder, DuBois, Angell, reflexivity, anarchy, hierarchy
Modern textbooks assert that international relations (IR) was established as an
academic discipline in 1919. They sketch its intellectual history through the
description of Four Great Debates (Schieder & Spindler, 2014). After WWII
demonstrated that inter-state conflict was still central to international politics,
realists ‘won’ the First Great Debate against liberals, and then faced theoretical
challenges from behaviourists, which shaped the Second Great Debate during the
1950s/1960s. During this period, Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) ideas influenced an
entire generation of social scientists who grew to believe that intellectual ‘progress’
could only stem from clashes between incommensurate theoretical paradigms
(see the influential work of Lakatos & Musgrave, 1970). This move provided the
context of IR’s Third Great Debate (TGD) which brought about a fundamental
separation between theoretical strands. On the one hand, there was a rapprochement
between neo-realism and neo-liberalism which built an agreement around the
assumption that the international system is anarchic; while the specific
interpretations of this term vary between scholars, they are in broad consensus
that it denotes a system with lack of overarching authority. On the other hand,
neo-Marxists (sometimes referred to as neo-Marxians) and neo-Gramscians put
forth a fundamentally different view, arguing that the international system is a
hierarchical structure of institutionalized inequality between states. This is broadly
understood as a structure which normalizes super- and sub-ordination.
Neo-realism and neo-liberalism are part of a spectrum of approaches which
Cox (1981, p. 128) calls ‘problem-solving’, meaning that they take the world as
they believe it to be (claiming their view is objective/value-free) and seek to
mitigate for already existing problems. In other words, they accept the status quo
of the international order, as they view it. This common underpinning belief
accounted for the establishment of the ‘neo-neo’ consensus between neo-realism
and neo-liberalism in the 1980s, which was shaped around a common core
assumption that the international system is defined by anarchy (Keohane, 1989,
p. 8). Today, these two approaches are part of a broad spectrum known as
mainstream international relations theories (MIRTs), all of which seek to mitigate
the conflicts that are believed to be originally caused by the anarchic nature of the
international system. As Figure 1 indicates, key groups of mainstream scholars
include realists, who believe sovereign states are seeking to secure their survival
in a self-help environment; liberals, who believe conflicts which arise as effects
of anarchy can be mitigated through deepening interdependence and mechanisms
of international organisations and social constructivists who are interested in the
social dimensions of anarchy and in the ways that they are manifested differently
in different cultural circumstances.
In contrast to mainstream theories, critical ones are focused on the notion of
emancipation, which refers to freeing people from power structures created by
society/societies through historical processes—this also includes the modern state
system, among others. Inspired by various traditions of ‘practical philosophy’

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